Recon by Fire by Mark Paloolian

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Mark Paloolian was drafted into the Army and served a year in the Vietnam War. Recon by Fire: Fighting with the 1st BN 5th (Mech) Infantry in Vietnam (Hellgate, p. 150 pp., $12.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is the story of Paloolian’s military experience from 1966-68. In it, he chronicles his recruitment, training, and deployment to Vietnam as an infantry armored personnel carrier driver with the  5th Mechanized Infantry Battalion in the 25th Infantry Division. This is Paloolian’s second book. His first, Brutality: The Tragic Story of Stanley Ketchel, the Michigan Assassin is a boxing history published in 2007.

Recon By Fire is a short book with many illustrations, a detailed glossary, and two appendices which contain statistics about the war and military draft conscription numbers from 1917-73. The twelve short chapters deal with the details of driving and operating armored personnel carriers. We learn quickly that you don’t ride inside the machine. That was a good way to die.

Paloolian started writing fifty years after he’d served in Vietnam. The stories and photographs are his, but the experience of being in this war is universally unique and “sadly universal on Planet Earth,” as he writes.

Chapter Two gives an excellent overview of what the author’s training at Fort Knox was like. Soon he is in Vietnam and in the field working bridge security. His first firefight is described eloquently. I kept getting the feeling of déjà vu and then remembered Black Virgin Mountain, a very similar memoir written by Larry Heinemann, who also wrote Close Quarters, the classic novel of life and service in the Vietnam War in a mechanized Army unit.

Recon By Fire is a more workmanlike book than Heinemann’s memoir and novel. Close Quarters is a fine literary novel that takes its place on the short shelf of classic books about service in the Vietnam War.

I highly recommend that a reader read both books and make some comparisons. That would be an instructive exercise for a student of the Vietnam War. Paloolian went back to Vietnam thirty years after he came home from the war. His observations about how the country had changed are intelligent and worth reading. It’s a trip I never made, but I can see where it would be worth the time and the trouble to do so.

 

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Paloolian in Vietnam in 1967 with APC hit by an RPG

Mark Paloolian mentions many of the usual things that former infantrymen can’t seem to resist cataloging in their memoirs: John Wayne, Agent Orange, free fire zones, VC tunnels and booby traps, the “Land of the Big PX,” shit burning, friendly fire, the movie Platoon, and many more.

His ability to type saved his life, Paloolian writes. I have to agree. My entering Basic Training with typing skills also went a long way toward saving my life. My D in high school typing made me a man among men in the U.S. Army of 1966.

–David Willson

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From 4-F to U.S. Navy Surgeon General by Harold M. Koenig

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In the spirit of Horatio Alger, the title of Harold M. Koenig’s book tells the whole story: From 4-F to U.S. Navy Surgeon General: A Physician’s Memoir (McFarland, 215 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Koenig won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, but attended classes for only a year because he lost hearing in one ear. Categorized as 4-F—medically unfit for military duty—he worked his way into Baylor University Medical School in 1962.

He was set to graduate in 1966 when the Vietnam War sped up. The Navy needed doctors and—ignoring his 4-F status—enticed him to enlist by offering an Ensign’s commission and paying his college loans. In exchange, Koenig agreed to serve three years following his internship.

He and Deena Prescott married in 1965. They had three sons who all became Navy officers. Deena accompanied her husband on his first assignment in Japan, from 1967-69. “I was happy I would not be going to Vietnam,” Koenig says. Thereafter, he mentions the Vietnam War only fleetingly.

His memoir chronologically works through a thirty-two year career in the Navy. It held my interest because Koenig held many jobs in many locations and provides details and perspectives about all of them. His competence in solving problems earned him increasingly difficult trouble-shooting assignments that built a reputation as an effective leader. He feared no confrontation and made patients’ welfare his primary concern.

Koenig says the hardest job he had was when as “junior to about two-dozen captains,” he commanded the re-accreditation of the Navy hospital in San Diego. His chapter on those two years of duty teaches lessons about how to cope with one nightmarish problem after another. Success in that job cinched his promotion to admiral.

Koenig repeatedly worked for the same bosses and gave them his total loyalty. He also never forgot those who worked for him.

09-9004-2On his way to the top, he continued to solve difficult problems. They included:

  • finding medical manpower for the first Iraqi War
  • improving TRICARE and Medicare for troops and their dependents
  • working with—and against—members of Congress on Base Realignment and Closure
  • remedying a shortage of doctors
  • attending meetings that frequently improved policies, especially inter-service sessions.

Koenig closes his memoir by recalling his social life and travel during his Navy years. His perks included lunching at the White House with President Clinton, marching among the midshipmen at Army-Navy football games, and flying with the Blue Angels. Fact-finding travel took him to virtually every military hospital in the United States and to dozens of places around the world.

The message from Koenig’s memoir: Hard work and friendships pay off.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Tan Tru by Larry Brooks

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Larry Brooks was a big guy, about six feet, two inches tall, so it was no surprise that when he got his unit in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam in February 1968 he was chose to carry the big machine gun. Brooks could carry it like a lunch bucket, by the handle.

Although Larry Brooks was a high school dropout, his memoir, Tan Tru (238 pp., $9.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), does not read like it. It is a well-organized, well-written book, with short chapters with pithy titles such as “Basic Training at Fort Ord,” “Tigerland,” “Orders for Vietnam,” “The Ninth Division,” “Busted,” and “Home Again.” Each title covers the subject of its chapter and no chapter goes on too long.

I haven’t actually read a million books about what life was like for a man drafted into a 9th Division infantry unit, but it seems to me that I have. But this book held my attention and was fun to read—despite my familiarity with the material.

When a newly assigned lieutenant shouts, “Let’s go in there like infantrymen!” Brooks says that he’s not in an Audie Murphy movie, and what the hell was Lt. Campbell trying to do to us? The next thing the reader knows Campbell is down and an urgent dust-off needed. Campbell loses a leg due to this wound and is done with his tour of duty.

This familiar material is handled in a fresh way. The language is not fresh and new, but certainly it is fair for the author to use terms such as “major cluster fuck.” Some of the cluster fucks Brooks experienced in the war came about as the result of Robert S. McNamara’s Project 100,000. That program set up lower physical and mental standards for the military that allowed individuals who would have been rejected to be drafted.

Bob Hope is not mentioned until late in the book as Christmas 1968 approaches. The issue of Vietnam veterans being castigated as “baby killers” does not come up until the book is almost over, but the mention fits the narrative timetable.

Being demonized as baby killers upset the author as he was trying to readjust to life back home after the war. My reaction is that life is hard and then you die. That’s my philosophizing from my current position as a Vietnam War veteran dying from Agent Orange-caused cancer.

Being a war criminal loser is the least of my worries.  But I admit that I do brood about it late at night.

—David Willson

Somebody’s Catching Hell by Peter Smith

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Peter Smith served as a U.S. Marine Corps aerial photo interpreter in DaNang in the Vietnam War, including during the 1968 Tet Offensive. His novel, Somebody’s Catching Hell (Prospect Publishing, 343 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his experiences in the war. We learn, among other things that the Marines doing his job placed themselves seriously at risk taking their pictures.

The book contains a useful glossary, as well as an informative epilogue. The epilogue informs the reader about what happened to some of the novel’s characters.  “The Marines who fought at the ARVN Compound and Da Nang River Bridge during the 1968 Tet Offensive had varied civilian lives after mustering out of the Marine Corps,” Smith writes. “Some were successful and some were not.”

The novel examines the Vietnam War from the point of view of those who should not have been involved directly in engaging the enemy, but who sometimes did not manage to avoid combat in close-quarters. Often in hair-raising circumstances.

Duke Dukesheirer and his buddies have dreams of stealing flight attendants’ silk panties, and those fantasies keep them going. The book mostly concentrates on Duke and his buddies and their relationships with each other and the locals, which makes for a nice contrast. Duke stares down a stereoscope looking for potential North Vietnamese rocket sites “until his eyeballs begin to look like a contour map of Mount Suribachi.”

The writing is descriptive and sharp. Details about the warp and woof of Marine wartime headquarters came alive on the page for this reader.

Anyone who wishes to learn more about this ostensible non-combat arm of the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War should give Somebody’s Catching Hell a close reading.

I enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it.

–David Willson

Broken Arrow by Jim Winchester

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Explaining the loss of a nuclear bomb is only a small part of the wealth of historical information Jim Winchester provides in Broken Arrow: How the U.S. Navy Lost a Nuclear Bomb (Casemate, 272 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $19.99, Kindle).

The Navy lost a one-megaton weapon during a 1965 loading drill. Deck crewmen of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga (“Tico” in Navy slang) accidentally pushed an A-4 Skyhawk, which carried the bomb, into the South China Sea. Trapped in the cockpit, the pilot, twenty-four-year-old Lt JG Douglas Morey Webster, sank with the plane and the weapon. The Navy covered up the accident for nearly a quarter of a century.

Jim Winchester presents step-by-step accounts of the incident, its aftermath, and related events. An authority on Navy operations, Winchester has written or edited more than twenty books on military topics. His best-know work is a history of the A-4 Skyhawk. He also has gone to sea with ships from several of the world’s navies.

As background for understanding the significance of the lost bomb, Winchester provides the following:

  • A history of the Tico
  • The short life of Douglas Morey Webster
  • Difficulties inherent in aircraft carrier operations
  • The Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP)—a targeting matrix for nuclear weapons
  • The investigation and cover-up of the loss of the bomb
  • Tico fighter-bomber action over North Vietnam

Each category contains eye-opening information. For example, the Tico, commissioned in May 1944, barely survived hits by Japanese kamikaze fighters in World War II. Thereafter, the rebuilt ship seemed accident-prone with problems such as a “stopcock incident” that caused the ship to start sinking as far as the hanger deck. Winchester vividly shows that working and living aboard a carrier exposes crew members and fliers to a continuous stream of accidents and death during both war and peace.

11111111111111111111111111A redacted accident report written in 1965 did not mention a nuclear weapon involved, but it did place the greatest blame for the accident on Webster, primarily citing him for inattention.

Winchester’s discussion of the SIOP serves as an extended footnote to explain why an aircraft carrier supporting the Vietnam War needed nuclear weapons. I worked under the Strategic Air Command Emergency War Order and the SIOP from 1957-63 as a B-47 and B-52 radar-navigator and I can vouch for Winchester’s insight into a virtually forgotten strategy. At that time, the Air Force controlled 92 percent of the Free World’s striking power; inter-service rivalries and jealousy overwhelmed the have-nots.

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DoD  “Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980”

A cover-up ensued because the United States—or perhaps the Navy—acted in its own interest and violated a nuclear-free-area treaty with Japan. In 1989, two American researchers uncovered everything about the Tico incident. There were protests in Japan for several weeks, but they came far too late.

“In December 1989, Japan closed the book on the submerged bomb,” Winchester says.

Jim Winchester summarizes the dilemma of nuclear weapon disasters across the years—at least to the degree that the services have made them public. Overall, he illuminates virtually every lesson available about the incident.

—Henry Zeybel

Hiroshi’s Story by Richard Rajner

Richard Rajner’s Hiroshi’s Story: The Journals of a Japanese Soldier in Viet Nam, 1941-1968 (Austin Macauley, 500 pp., $37.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $4.95, Kindle is a massive, dense novel. Rajner does not break up the story into chapters, parts, or books. He doesn’t even use space breaks between paragraphs. The novel just begins and takes off, almost in a stream-of-consciousness form.

It’s a design that, surprisingly to me, worked with this book. At first, it seem like reading the book would be a daunting task. But once I started, I seemed to be naturally carried along by the story, with no place to rest until the end.

Rajner, who served three tours in the American war in Vietnam, offers up a fictional account of the 5,000 Japanese troops who remained in Vietnam following World War II and who became part of the Viet Cong guerrilla movement in the south.

Hiroshi Watanabe and Matome Tanaka, cousins from a small farming village, join the Imperial Japanese Army right after high school. Growing up doing farm work gave them the strength to survive fairly brutal military training when many sons of factory workers and shopkeepers fell out along the way.

Being sent immediately into the war with China, they served as part of an antiaircraft unit. Two years later, in 1941, they found themselves being shipped to Indochina. By a “peculiar” diplomatic agreement, the occupied Vichy French government allowed Japan to occupy its colonies in Southeast Asia.

The boys were excited to be assigned to an airbase 30 kilometers north of Saigon—a city known as the “Pearl of the Orient” because of its “wide variety of delights.”

Before long, they learned that Imperial Japanese forces were about to take over all of Southeast Asia. By the summer of 1944, however, things were looking much different. For the first time in 2,600 years the Japanese were about to lose a war.

A faction of the Japanese government encouraged the thousands of Japanese soldiers in occupied lands to join local resistance groups after the war to continue to fight the Americans and their allies. With no hesitation, Watanabe and Tanaka decide to fight on as “the Emperor’s soldiers” by joining the newly formed Vietnamese Army.

Revenge is their sole motivation—a desire to punish the Western powers for defeating Japan. They consider themselves instruments of retribution. Specifically, they would  fight until the Vietnamese people had become fully independent.

While fighting against the French colonial government, Watanabe and Tanaka become weakened from combat wounds and disease and are allowed to become farmers, morphing into a soldier-farmer role. They marry Vietnamese women, and raise families.

When the French are defeated in 1954, however, Vietnam remained a divided nation due to a “poorly negotiated” peace treaty. So the two men continue in their roles as soldier-farmers. They dream of someday returning to their homeland, taking their families with them.

But soon they’re fighting against the Saigon government, which they’ve been told is propped up by Western powers. It’s a fight the two will continue to be a part of until it ends for them in 1968.

Rajner’s story, after 500 pages, ends without having built to a climax. It ends, appropriately, as if to say this is the way things are, as they always have been, and as they always will be.

Hiroshi’s Story is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

—Bill McCloud

Back in the World by Joe Lerner and Herman Kaufman

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The late Joe Lerner was assigned to the American embassy in Laos in an undercover espionage posting before his return home from the Vietnam War. Later, while attending college, he wrote extensively on his readjustment to civilian life. Herman “Kid” Kaufman was posted to the American embassy in Laos as a communications technician. He knew Joe Lerner there, and mentored him during his college career. Kaufman completed Lerner’s memoirs with his own recollections, and the result is Back in the World: A Composite Novel: Returning to the World Can Be So Much Harder than Leaving (Booklocker.com, 264 pp. $21.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle).

The characters in Lerner and Kaufman’s book are entirely fictional. The events may be real happenings that have been fantasized into fiction, but are not intended to portray historic events.  Readers who know some Vietnam War history may object to the authors’ twisting of the war’s timing, but this is done out of dramatic necessity.  The public’s ill treatment of Vietnam veterans is true in many cases.

The authors compare the Vietnam War with World War II by noting that the killing of evil Nazis and treacherous “Japs” was easily justified. “I grew up with John Wayne telling me so,” they write. The so-called Big War, the Real War, and the Good War was a morality melodrama, an all-star production.  As the authors put it: “Our righteous chevaliers sallied forth to vanquish the evil hoards.”

They characterize the American military in Vietnam as ten percent defective. “No matter how fucking clear you make anything to the troops, ten percent of them never get the word. They’re fucking clueless.”

They go on to state the military’s raison d’être: “Everyone who joins the service helps to kill people. It’s the purpose of the military. What does it matter who actually pulls the trigger or drops the bomb?”

When Joe, the book’s hero, arrives back home in the World, he discovers that a myth has preceded him. “You dudes got the black syph and I don’t know what all. Hey, I’m clean. I ain’t taking no chances. They’re keeping some of you guys over there on an island ‘cause they can’t cure you. Don’t tell me you believe that old sea story?”

Our hero ends up out in a drizzly street, with seagulls shrieking at him. No love for him, not even a short time.

Homecoming is bleak for Vietnam veterans. What will become of Joe Lerner?  Nothing good.

–David Willson